From Spider to Starfish Churches [2of4]

This series is focused on The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Brafman and Beckstrom. Come check it out every Wednesday in June!

We talked last week about how churches (along with major businesses in society) consolidate their resources when they feel like they are losing ground. This is called a spider response, because it makes them more spider-like as they concentrate more and more power in the head.

However, spider responses do not work versus starfish organizations or culture. Thus, we’re going to examine what a starfish response may look like. In other words, instead of centralizing and consolidating authority, what might it look like if we respond from a grassroots level? Read on for more…

Starfish are unaffected by SpidersWe remember from last week the examples of Skype and Craigslist, which took the power away from the spider organizations. The same with the third example: the US Government’s pursuit of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. They were attacking it like a spider organization: kill the head (bin Laden) and it will go away. What they slowly learned was it is a leaderless starfish movement: bin Laden doesn’t approve each attack; rather, members adopt the ideology and copy what has worked in the past, then strike out on their own. To combat a starfish culture is like fighting a Hydra: too many heads and they grow back!

The Spider church loses against a starfish cultureMoving away from violent metaphors, it is clear that one reason why the church is losing relevance is not some centralized opponent, but from decentralized culture which finds meaning in its own channels. So, how can the church become relevant to that which has no central hub?

There are two responses (okay three*, but the third is untranslatable) that Brafman and Beckstrom outline of how to respond to a decentralized culture. They are to empower and emulate the starfish organization.

Starfish culture often responds to societal shifts.Empower the starfish culture. A stronger starfish culture means that their values will shift from individualism to communal. For example, the best way to combat terrorism is to raise the value of life for those whom terorrists use as expendible fodder. By raising the quality of life, such as using Jamii Bora Trust microloans, you remove the anger and the hopelessness, and people will live in hope rather than give their lives to al-Qaeda. Give people something to hold onto, rather than nothing to lose.

  • By putting missions at the forefront, the Church can gradually make their community’s lives better and defeat the hopelessness that plagues our culture. I’ve always believed that missions is the best evangelism, but more than that, by improving conditions and livelihood, churches can gradually change a society’s ideology. What better way to combat hopelessness AND raise the church’s reputation at the same time?

Starfish knowledge resides at the edges of society.Emulate the starfish culture. The best match for a starfish is another starfish. By decentralizing the hierarchy, you can open up avenues of communication and interaction and really learn something. When American Airlines was stumbling and having money issues, they realized that knowledge resided at the edge of the hierarchy. In Tulsa, OK, the American Airlines mechanics had built a “Monster” machine that took dull drill bits (which would normally wear out quickly) and sharpen them. By doing so, they saved their team money, and by emulating that practice at other AA shops, AA was able to reduce costs.

  • By reducing the hierarchy and allowing for decentralized ministry to emerge, the Church can lower the barriers to ministry. As written about in The Church and Wikipedia, allowing for grassroots ideas of ministry to emerge can come up with more relevant and easy forms of ministry.

Starfish Churches are most relevant to Starfish culture.In short, by becoming a starfish church we can better respond to a starfish culture. Open systems don’t necessarily make better decisions; but they can respond more quickly because each member has access to information and can make direct use of it. Brafman & Beckstrom’s third principle of open systems (starfish organizations) explains:

An open system doesn’t have central intelligence;
the information is spread throughout the system.

Starfish stand between spider churches and starfish culture.Finally, why do we need to do this? Ultimately, the Church is called to be peacemakers. Starfish churches can serve as the bridge point between spider churches and an apathetic community. For example, when internet standards were being adopted, there was a struggle between two platforms to host websites on (one by Microsoft, one by Netscape). As consumer choices degraded to Mac v. PC levels, an open source grassroots project called Apache became well-enough supported that it presented an easy third choice for webhosts. Now, somewhere like 50% of all websites use Apache. Rather than being forced between platforms, the open-source decentralized Apache presented a middle way.

  • In the same way, between the entrenched churches that cannot change their mindset and an echo-chamber culture, starfish churches can serve as that bridge, that safe place between two parties that can lead to a revival amongst them both.

Between two camps, the middle way is the way of peace.In short, open systems can help ease tensions between entrenched parties: church and culture. And it is that tension between the echo chambers of church and the echo-chambers of culture that starfish churches are most adaptable, relevant, and able to produce forms of ministry which empower all people around the table.

Your turn. What do you think?

  • What examples of starfish churches have you experience with?
  • What are examples of ministries that are relevant to decentralized society?

Thanks for commenting, and welcome to our visitors!

* the third option is to Centralize the starfish culture. When the US Government was dealing with the Apaches (the Native Americans, not the web servers!), they were decentralized and fierce warriors whose leadership was constantly changing and thus indestructible. What did the US Government do? They gave the Apaches cattle, and by giving them a limited resource, the entire culture changed to protect and exploit this resource. Then the US Governemnt was able to eradicate and domesticate them. See why I saw it as exploitative?)

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